Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Glorious glutens

In the past, my bread-making attempts have been less than fruitful. I've turned out lumpy loaves, misshapen messes, and rock-hard ryes. But lately, having honed my dough skills as the Pizza Queen at work, my homegrown efforts are yielding some delectable results. If you have a food processor, this is the least messy bread you'll ever make. (No need to knead!)
If you don't, it's still worth a try - simply incorporate the ingredients by hand, on a well-floured surface, and be sure to keep kneading until the dough is smooth and springy.

Herbed Sandwich Bread
(makes one big honkin' loaf)

- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, thyme, za'atar, or dried herb of choice
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1-1/2 teaspoon instant (granulated) yeast
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing bowl and pan
- 1-1/2 cups cool milk (or water)

1. Fit your food processor with the dough blade attachment. Add the flour, chopped onion, herb, salt, and yeast, and pulse a couple of times.
2. With the motor running, add the honey, olive oil, and milk slowly through the feed tube. Continue running the machine until a ball of dough forms around the blade, about 1 minute.
3. Remove the hunk of dough from the machine and shape into a sphere. Place in a large well-oiled bowl and cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let rise at least 2 hours in a warm spot.
4. Deflate the risen dough and reshape into a ball. Let rest 15 minutes. Then, shape into a loaf and place on an oiled baking sheet (if you're going free-form) or in a large oiled loaf pan, cover with a towel, and allow to rise again for another hour.
5. Heat your oven to 375 degrees F. With a sharp paring knife, slash across the top of your loaf in a few evenly spaced horizontal lines. Brush the top of the loaf with water and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it. You can also test for doneness by taking a read of the internal temperature of the loaf; it should be about 160 degrees F.

If you want to do some experimenting, try substituting garlic for the onion and add chopped kalamata olives. Or go nuts! Walnuts and sunflower seeds would work nicely, maybe with some caraway seeds sprinkled on top.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chicken pizza?!!

Yes, folks, you read that right: Chicken pizza. Or, really, chicken lamejun. Lamejun is a flatbread made in Armenia and Turkey that is typically topped with ground lamb, onion, and spices chopped finely into a paste. This non-traditional version, again taken from Ana Sortun's "Spice," is a wonderful adaptation. Imagine an aromatic chicken meatball spread all over a thin piece of bread (called lavash). Having just acquired an 11-cup Cuisinart food processor (thanks, Mom!), I thought I would take it for a test drive with this simple recipe:

Chicken Lamejun with Roasted Red Peppers, Pistachios, and Za'atar
(makes 4 large lamejun)

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 small Spanish onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 scallions, trimmed and minced
1 teaspoon za'atar (see previous post)
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg white
1/4 cup milk
1 cup toasted and ground pistachios
4 rectangular pieces of lavash
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 roasted red peppers, deseeded, skinned, and sliced into strips
Homemade labneh (see previous post) for serving

1. Trim chicken breasts of any cartilage or fat and cut into 1- to 2-inch cubes.
2. Grind the chicken in a food processor until you get a smooth paste, for about 1 minute.
3. Use the pulse button to add in the onion and scallions, za'atar, salt, and egg white.
4. Remove the mixture to a small bowl, and stir in the milk and pistachios.
5. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
6. Spread a thin, even layer of the chicken mixture onto each lavash, all the way to the edges.
7. Put the lamejuns on a baking sheet or a pizza stone (or even in a baking dish that is too small, so the ends hang over the sides - you'll end up with a bowl-shaped lamejun!) and bake for about 15 minutes, until the lavash is crisp and the chicken mixture is totally cooked (it should be completely firm).
8. Serve each lamejun with a few red pepper strips and a dollop of labneh cheese.

Dan enjoyed his lamejun!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My new super-snack

This might not be what you typically reach for when you're feeling peckish, but my new go-to is warm whole-wheat pita with homemade labneh and za'atar. It's delicious and healthy. This new dish was inspired by yet another wonderful addition to my cookbook collection: "Secrets of Cooking," a collection of Armenian/Lebanese/Persian recipes by Linda Chirinian. The book came wrapped in brown paper, with a NYC return address label that showed the headquarters of the AGBU (the Armenian General Benevolent Union) - for some, a mysterious benefactor, but I knew right away that this was a gift from my Aunt Viviane in Paris, who presides over the AGBU (in French it's "UGAB") in the City of Love. Big batchigs to you, Viviane!

Now, onto the definitions: Labneh is a yogurt cheese, made by straining plain yogurt, mixed with a bit of salt, through a sieve lined with cheesecloth for up to 12 hours. Imagine Greek yogurt, but even better. It is tart, creamy, and spreadable.

is a word that refers both to a family of Middle Eastern herbs, closely related to thyme and oregano, as well as to a spice mixture that is a blend of sumac, toasted sesame seeds, the green herb itself (whichever variety you go with), and sea salt. I mixed a variation on what I found in the cookbook and on various websites:

1/4 cup sumac
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon sea salt

Simply toast the sesame seeds lightly in a dry skillet, then grind them gently, either in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle (my preference). Then mix in the remaining ingredients and Voila! you have homemade za'atar.

To enjoy these two creations together, spoon some labneh into a bowl, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle generously with za'atar and more sea salt to taste.

Happy dipping!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My homemade (un) sun-dried tomatoes

I've been experimenting with (among other things) using my gas oven as a dehydrator. I've dried herbs, garlic and now: tomatoes. Dan is a big fan of sun-dried tomatoes, so I figured, why spend the extra moolah buying those fancy, non-eco-friendly, imported sun-dried tomatoes when I can make my own at home?! Granted, they're not exactly sun dried (although it looks like the sunshine is returning again to New York, yippee!!), but they're virtually the same. To make them, I simply core and vertically slice plum tomatoes (they're less juicy, more meaty - better than the beefsteak tomatoes for drying), lay them out on a baking sheet, and put them in the oven overnight, until they're all wrinkled up and leathery. You don't even need to turn the oven on - just trust in the steady low heat of the oven pilot to do the job right.

Here are my oven-dried tomatoes, packed into a jar with some extra virgin olive oil to cover.
Packaged this way, they should keep for months in the fridge. And if I weren't so tired of kitchen appliances, I would use the nifty canning kit that Paul got me for Christmas (thanks, bro!) and make 'em last forever. However, considering I live with a jiu-jitsu trained eating-machine, I needn't worry about these sweet snacks going sour :)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A condiment occasion

One would think my full-time job as a cook might slow my pace of home-cooking, but not so, sir! Yesterday I spent exactly the entire day in the kitchen, made two new spice blends (a fish spice and some Ras El-Hanout), used the latter to make homemade harissa, made a pickled red onion condiment, and also whipped up some parsley butter with loads of garlic. Also, I oven-dried some tomatoes to use in my harissa. Here's the aerial view:

You may be asking yourself, what's this harissa stuff? Well, it's a sauce typically used in North African (ie. Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) kitchens for many purposes, such as flavoring meats, brightening soups, mixing into cous-cous, etc. The uses are rather infinite because it's so damn tasty. The number of recipes for harissa are just about as infinite, but mine is a blend of the following (makes about 1 cup):

1/2 cup ground hot red chilis
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes (I used my oven-dried ones)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons Ras el Hanout **
2 tablespoons olive oil

Note: you'll want to strain this blend through a fine-mesh sieve before serving to extract all the chili pepper skins and seeds.

** Ras el Hanout translates from Moroccan Arabic to "head of the shop" and refers to a spice mixture comprised of the best products the shop owner has to offer. So, again, many different variations on this tune. Mine has cumin, saffron, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, and loads of medium-hot paprika.

After I had played mad-scientist with my spices for long enough, I made a simple dinner of grilled steak strips placed on pita bread to showcase my new repertoire of condiments: the still hot steak got a slight schmear of parsley butter, then a pile of pickled onions, then a drizzle of my extra hot harissa.

Accompanying the main was a salad of thinly-sliced fennel bulbs, sectioned oranges, and baby greens, seasoned simply with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a light sprinkling of chopped parsley.

Oh, and there was plenty of vino! Dan contributed a shiraz, and Steph a syrah - both totally hit the bulls-eye of appropriate meat-pairing wines. And both were mercilessly drained by the end of the evening!